Sunday 8 April 2018


This story starts a week or so ago when David sent me an email. That's David Siggers, my friend in London. He is the subject of a celebratory blog I posted last year. Do press the link here to remind yourself of his story or discover it for the first time. Trust me, he is remarkable.

And so to this post's focus - Prison Wisdom. Those of you familiar with the Jago story will know that Jago spent nearly two decades behind bars before he had reached the age of 40 - and that he had sane and civilised views about the state of our penal system and the need for radical reform. He wrote about these matters in his autobiography: 'The Burglar's Bedside Companion' (1975) and his status as a prison reformer receives its due attention in my biography of the burglar-turned-artist. I have already published a post on the subject that you can access by pressing the link here.

Strangeways prison riot in 1990

David's email brought the subject of prison reform crunching down on my desk. He had been trawling through the Guardian newspaper archive online for his own research purposes when he decided to tap the name of Jago Stone into the search engine. He got a tantalising glimpse of a letter containing that name - and emailed me immediately. I took out my 7-day free trial on the Ancestry website - Ancestry have served me well; Jago's birth, marriage and death certificates have come my way through their services - and made the full discovery. On Thursday April 3, 1975, the Guardian

had published a letter from Jago Stone who signs himself as 'Artist, author, ex-con.' with the address: The Old Rectory, Banbury, Oxon.

The event that had triggered Jago's letter was a riot in Winchester prison and the letter beside Jago's takes us further into that episode in the history of this stain on our so-called civilised values - life in our prisons. Here it is:

Remember, you are reading about a crisis in our prisons in the mid-70s. The image that opens this blog is of the Strangeways prison riot in 1990. The problems are systemic and endemic. In 2015, the author of the report into the Strangeways riot - Lord Woolf -  was calling for another UK enquiry into the state of our prisons as conditions were as bad as they were in 1990 when the dramatic siege went on for 25 days, two people died, and hundreds were injured.

Back to the mid-70s - and this time we have moved on a year to the Hull prison riots of 1976.

Hull prisoners revolt, 1976 - The Red Menace

Paul Hill
Paul Hill of the Guildford 4's account of the 1976 riot at Hull prison.
The years the Guildford Four spent in jail were not simply wasted time in which they sat and waited in the hope of eventual release. Every day in prison they faced a struggle to maintain their humanity against a system that denies it. Here we reproduce an account by Paul Hill [of the Guildford 4] of one moment in this struggle - the Hull prison riot of 1976.
For four days in September 1976 prisoners took over 3 of the 4 wings of Hull prison. As well as Paul Hill, participants in the riot included Irish Republicans (such as Martin Brady), Jake Prescott (in prison for his activities with the Angry Brigade) and various ‘ordinary criminals’: in struggles such as these it becomes clear that all prisoners are political.
The immediate cause of the riot was the beating up by screws of a prisoner in the segregation unit. Other grievances included the widespread and indiscriminate use of ‘Rule 43’ (allowing for solitary confinement), and slave labour conditions in the prison workshops, where furniture was made for prisons in Iran. The latter explains why during the riot prisoners on the roof shouted "Fuck the Shah of Iran! Fuck the Shah of Iran!"
After taking control of the buildings and freeing those held in the segregation unit, the prisoners found files held on them by the authorities. Furious at the contents of these files (Paul Hill’s for instance included the remark "Never to be released"), "everyone decided to begin demolishing the prison with their bare hands" (Jake Prescott). As well as causing extensive damage, the prisoners held a roof top protest during which they talked to a crowd of 400 school children who gathered on the other side of the wall, throwing them sweets, toys and money ‘liberated’ from the prison canteen.
The protest was called off in return for a promise of no brutality and no damage to prisoners’ property. Once they surrendered however their possessions were smashed and they were severely beaten up by prison officers. Irish prisoners were forced onto their hands and knees and told to sing ‘God save the Queen’, black prisoners were racially abused.
A prisoner described one of the beatings he witnessed: "I then heard another being dragged down the stairs, this was a boy of 23 named Paul Hill. He had shoulder length hair and it was by this that he was being pulled down the stairs helped by full blooded kicks to his stomach, chest and back, he was literally thrown down the last few stairs with the words "Remember Hull ‘76’ ".
(This account is taken from "Don’t Mark His Face - Hull Prison Riot ‘76" published by the National Prisoners Movement).
Paul Hill’s account
I was involved in the protest at Hull. The events that led to this protest are already known by you, so I will start from after the thing was over, and when we were put in strip cells in B wing. After being in my cell for about two hours, six screws came in led by a screw called Nobby Clark, they asked me for my medal around my neck. As it was of sentimental value I refused. I was then pushed into a corner and held down while Clark ripped it from my neck. They gave me a few petty slaps and then left. That night we were each (l think) given a mattress, no blankets, anyway the screws made it impossible for sleep as they roamed like little armies around the landings (in the total darkness ) banging doors, screaming in their usual lunatic ways, only some cons got more than verbal, on my landing I know of at least one con who they set about in his cell, and throughout most of the night, I heard others getting the by now ‘normal treatment’. I was very lucky on the Friday night because apart from the verbal I was left alone. By Saturday morning most cons I’m sure felt as I did, cold, tired and hungry and most of all afraid of what was to come.
‘The beatings’- not a feeling of fear as such, but a feeling of despair knowing each of us were totally helpless, I heard the screws work their way along my landing one at a time, cons were battered to breakfast and battered back again, when they got to me I was opened up, grabbed by the hair and dragged along the landing. I was kicked and punched about the body the whole way up the landing by screws who screamed and yelled as if they hated me more than anything in this world. I was in a ball to protect my face, head and privates so they lifted me by the hair and dipped my face in a tray of jam, I was then beaten back down to my cell and dumped on the floor, a few minutes later they came back again and said bye byes.
I was again beaten along the landing and down two flights of stairs, I was lucky enough to have a prisoner who was battered down in front of me witness my beating at the bottom of the stairs. He has said he will back me up in any court proceedings that I may take. This con is B.Coster who I am with at present. We then saw another con P.Rajah (also here) receiving the same treatment that we had. We were then handcuffed and taken to the police wagon and taken here. We each petitioned for access to a brief. This has been refused us, as they want us to tell them our full story first, which we won’t do, as whoever beat us up will be told in advance to say they was elsewhere.
While at Hull I got my small record (file) and some of the lines about me are as follows:
  1. That in Albany Prison I spoke of my willingness to take hostages, they said I might kill them.
  2. That at all times I am moody and show my hate for the screws by being unco-operative.
  3. That anyone who has ever spoken to me has said I express a desire to escape.
And no. 4 is the one that frightens me. They said I am totally suicidal. I am of sound mind and anyone who knows me says I’m happy go lucky. The reason I worry over this is why should they say this knowing it to be untrue? They also state other matters, some of which I don’t want to reveal to anyone other than my brief as they were to do with my case and he is at present trying to have it re-opened and I don’t wish to hinder his efforts. I think what disturbed me most of all was the fact that they had an intimate bit on each of the main witnesses at my trial and the part that angers me most of all is that they have a section in it on my girl (who has a child by me). They underlined in red This relationship must be ended. Not content with their efforts to wreck us they also wish to wreck our families. My record finished by stating again underlined in red - must be treated with strict discipline at all times.
We are bit by bit becoming more frustrated here as we are here and suffering over a prisoner who was beaten up at Hull, yet since coming here we have heard of guys being beaten and put in the ‘strong box’ naked. I fear that if these things are not brought to light then someone will be killed as it’s all too easy.
These people (screws) are their own law, and that is the law of the boot and the fist, all this is sanctioned by their lords (the govs.). I’ve been in 9 prisons in two years and I thought I’d seen the lot. But I ain’t seen as much brutality towards cons as I’ve seen at Hull and Here (Leicester). All we can do is protest verbally over these beatings here, but I might as well talk to the bog roll than do that, cause all we get in return is shit. If any of us were to raise our hands we would be battered, so what do we do? Listen to shit, get battered or hide in our cells like cowards and go insane listening to cons screaming?
We are human beings and we want to tell the world we’re human because if we don’t, after more of this we won’t be human very long, we’ll be shells or dead. Some people may say I read too many violent books but I know in my soul that if they came into this cell and clubbed me to death, that not one of them would face the law; remember THEY ARE THE LAW IN OUR WORLD...
In Hull I was one of the four cons who busted those in the seg unit out and I witnessed A.Clifford and I say now that the side of his face was marked, no one could ever tell me otherwise, as I seen with my own eyes. I also felt and adored the feeling of how the cons on the block hugged us as if we had just broke them from hell, some were so happy they had tears in their eyes, and I didn’t even know these ‘crazy happy guys’. But to me it felt like they were my brothers (and they are) as I’m one of them, a con. I suppose people see us on the box looking like some kind of Cambridge rapist all masked up only what they saw was human beings, that’s what we are. (We all got balls and brains but some got balls and chains). We only want to live like human beings.
The Red Menace, number five, January 1990. Taken from the Practical History website.
If you have read this far, you may perhaps feel sickened by these realities of prison life. Jago however was as ex-con who had learned to survive within the shit. He sets himself up in his letter as the man above it all who can see a parallel between the truncheon-bearing screw intent on violence to secure order in his world and the convict who is psychologically disturbed and a trouble-maker. Jago's is the voice of moderation - I admit I wish he had been stronger in his condemnation of gaoler brutality - but he does at least come out on the side of the prison governor at Winchester, the guy who had been 'too soft'. 

Jago also makes the startling claim that prisons are run smoothly by the consent of the inmates. The silent majority among officers and inmates alike need to be heard - they after all keep the prison from descending into a state of riot.

I first read this opinion of Jago that prisons depend on their convicts for their smooth-running in his autobiography and the link with the ideas of Baron Giddens is explored in my biography. Here is the relevant extract:

Chapter Five: ‘Doing Time’ (pp.25-30) provides Jago with the opportunity to impart his wisdom on how to cope, indeed how to thrive, behind bars. I remember gasping out loud as I read one sentence. To explain, I need to relate a conversation that I had with my father-in-law, Ronald Watkins, in the early 1990s. Ronald was still working as a consultant in his field and he was talking about his contact with Anthony Giddens, now Baron Giddens, the eminent British sociologist and political thinker who had been employed by Ronald’s company on Ronald’s advice to advise on management structures. I became fascinated with a key idea of Giddens that Ronald explained that evening:
‘Prisons only continue to function because prisoners allow them to’.
What a stimulating way of looking at how an institution such as a prison operates! I remember playing with the idea that schools followed the same pattern? Were the pupils responsible for their own fate? Did schools function because the pupils allowed them to do so? How wonderful it must be for Giddens to have the time and space to come up with such an original speculation. The most creative thought I had had in those days was the one I kept repeating:
‘Teaching atrophies the mind’.

And now back to the passage and sentence that made me gasp out loud. Listen as Jago gives his lesson for the day to Peter [his supposed nephew]:
‘As the weeks go by you will discover that there are defects in the machine. This is because it isn’t really a machine at all. In a prison holding 300 men, there may be 50 prison officers. And only 25 of these are on duty at any given time.
Therefore it follows, I think, that a prison runs smoothly not by the will of the staff but by the consent of the prisoners.’
Bright man, Jago.'

Did Giddens ever read Stone? How do ideas circulate? I doubt if Stone ever read Giddens. But great minds think alike ...  At least my interest in Jago Stone allows a little posthumous airing of a vital and original observation. 

And an opportunity to air the state of our prisons yet again ...

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